Raising Themselves, Teenage Siblings Navigate Life in a Tent Camp

Darline Mizac, 17, holds her 6-day old son, Marckensley. Marclene stands in the background. She cares for her two sisters and brother in the Gaston Margron tent camp outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Save the Children provides free healthcare to residents of the tent camp. Photo credit: Lane Hartill

By Lane Hartill

In line at the clinic, in the forest of plump, sweating women and crying babies, Marclene is lost.

She’s willow thin and looks like she belongs in middle school. In her arms, she’s holding what appears to be a loaf of bread in a terry cloth bath towel.

She peels back the corner and unwraps the newest addition to her family.

“Six days old,” she says, quietly.

Marckensley, her sleeping nephew, is the newest member of Gaston Margron, a moldering tent camp of 4,800 people on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, one of more than 800 in the city. This has been home for Marclene and her three siblings since the earthquake two years ago. And it will probably be home for some time to come.

By day, the camp is a warren of hot tents that have started to disintegrate with age. People here pass the days sitting on bald patches of ground waiting for nothing in particular. At night, thuggish men lurk in the muddy alleys and women chat in the shadows.

Marclene is used to it. She’s used to bathing in a basin in her tent. She’s used to going without soap and laundry detergent because she can’t afford it. She’s used to asking people to borrow money.

She’s a mom by default, a life she didn’t sign up for. At 20 years old, having spent little time with her own mom, she relies on instincts, friends and her old Creole Bible to help guide her. In her tent, she recites Creole versus, praying for guidance. And maybe a little money.

“When problems come up,” she says, “I get on my knees and pray, and I feel better after that.”

Marclene’s dad rarely comes around. He’s brought money a few times. But the former tailor doesn’t have any himself. Her mom, lives in the countryside, and isn’t in the picture.

This afternoon, Marclene scraped up enough money for a pot of beans for dinner. After dinner and the sun goes down, she’ll crawl into the humidity and fug of her tent, and snuggle in next to Darline, her 17-year-old sister, Marckensley’s mom.

Marckensley will sleep between them on a clean white sheet and mattress. And Mona, their 18-year-old sister, will sleep on the floor. Their brother, Ted, 19, the breadwinner of this sibling family — he brings in a dollar a day, if he’s lucky, selling drinking sachets of drinking water in the market — sleeps on a piece of plywood with a ratty blanket in the tent next door.

At night, Marclene tries to block out the noise from the loud neighbors and the thumping music. The humidity, that arrives daily, uninvited, has once again worn out its welcome. There’s a hole in the side of the tent for ventilation if the heat is too much. She’ll doze off, but wake up when Darline gets up three times a night to nurse.

What are harder to ignore are life’s problems, the headaches women twice her age wrestle with: Where will she find money to pay for Mona’s school supplies? And the money she borrowed to pay for Darline’s hospital bills, how will she pay that back? Even more pressing: What will she have for dinner tomorrow?

For Ted, a quiet young man who always seems to be holding something back, the toughest parts of living in this camp are simple. His answers crystallize the needs of many Haitians.

“Food,” he says.

Marclene has a hard time coming up with the 37 cents to buy a few hunks of charcoal to cook beans or plain spaghetti, her go-to meals. The fall back option: paté. Small biscuits made of oil, flour and salt. They have little nutritional value, but they quiet a groaning stomach.

“Water,” continues Ted. That’s always a problem. Drinking water is no longer supplied to the camp. So it must be purchased. It’s only a few cents for small plastic bag.

“Sleep,” Ted finally says. The tents, made of plastic tarps that last about 6 months, are starting to fall apart. The rainy season has started in Haiti, and it hammers down with a ferocity that’s startling. It doesn’t take long before the leaks and rivulets become gushers in Marclene’s tent. She quickly moves the baby powder and their clothes hanging on a line in the tent so they don’t get wet. Then she sits on a chair and waits. She can sleep sitting up, she says; she’s had lots of practice.

While there are plenty of problems, Marclene and her siblings are lucky. Save the Children still operates a health clinic in the camp. Many humanitarian groups no longer work in the camps because of funding constraints.

Dr. Bien-Aimee Jooby, a gentle, English-speaking, bear-of-a man, works for Save the Children in Gaston Margron. He has a depthless vat of patience, seeing a never ending stream of patients with from the camp and the nearby neighborhood.

“If the clinic wasn’t here, they’d have no access to healthcare,” he says. The people who have money and connections have left the camp. The people who remain are the poorest in Port-au-Prince. “The money they find, they use for other things. They use money for healthcare only if they really need it.”

Save the Children’s clinic in the camp is free and with people like Dr. Jooby, the level of care is good. There are also women like Darline.

Darline Petit, another health worker in the camp, who wears huge hoop earrings, clean Capri pants and has a husky voice, teaches women in the camp about exclusive breastfeeding. Darline, Markensley’s mom, attends the sessions, absorbing the information, but saying little. But don’t be fooled.  She’s mentally chewing through the info.

How, she asked, is she supposed to only breastfeed her baby when she isn’t producing enough milk?

It’s not how much you eat, Petit says, it’s what you eat. Bananas and pistachios and dried fish are all much better than paté. “For 20 goudes (50 cents), you can eat a piece of cheese,” says Petit. But for Darline and Marclene, it’s not as easy as they make it sound. That’s half of what Ted earns in a day.

But they somehow manage. They have Marckensley now. Save the Children will look after him and his mom. Marckensley gives someone for Marclene to dote on.  Neighbors help.  Like a woman who, on the spur of the moment, bought him a soft baby blanket from a women wandering through the camp, selling limp used clothes slung over an arm.

God, neighbors and a little luck got Marclene through to this point. She says she’s become more thoughtful, she says, being a mom to her siblings.

“God says not to give up on yourself,” she says “even if you have problems.”

No matter what life throws at her, it’s clear, Marclene isn’t going to give up.